October 4, 2013

The Very Air--The Pact and Possibility of the Fairy Tale in Novels, By Elizabeth Reeder

New Fairy Tales, cover
Editor's note: Elizabeth Reeder, one of the contributors to the fascinating, complex new anthology, New Fairy Tales, brings us a glimpse of some of the ways the wonder and magic of fairy tales is woven into in literature beyond the classic tale. Stay tuned for much more on NFT (to which I mad a very minor contribution).

Fairy tales transport us.  They take us to a world and ask us to accept its rules, magic and realities.  The designation "fairy tale" is not limited to form or length, but fairy tales flourish in the short-story - almost aphoristic - form that can capitalize on the expected tropes, character types, and moral frames. I’m interested in authors who challenge these mores in language, character and structure.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, is full of purple-prose, tortured, opulent images, and well-pitched repetition. Here we’ll find the familiars of Bluebeard and the Marquis de Sade and yet enter new territory when the protagonist’s mother rides in on a horse, wields a gun, and saves her daughter. With inimitable style, Carter shatters simplistic moralistic readings, making her heroine difficult, motivated by desire and naivety, and the novella length of the story is another way of troubling a form that can become burdened by its own habits.

Many of my favorite novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Anne Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant; Judy Budnitz’s If I Told you Once; and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation,  remind me of fairy tales – lush, political, with magical moments that create room for revelations and complications.

In these novels entrance is everything. Toni Morrison, with her sharp first sentences, always lets us know that what follows will not be a familiar narrative: "They shoot the white girl first" (Paradise). Or how Budnitz’s family saga starts in an elusive eastern European country, "a place where someone had forgotten to add the color" and this is folklore, familiar and strange.  Then, as a more realistic voice takes over, it’s flashes of magic that show what is most possible and most troubling in this world - like the hand-knitted sweater out of which a misbehaving granddaughter cannot emerge.

In my novel Fremont, the mother of the story, Rachel Roanoke, comes from an island that is  "cosseted between the mainland of a different coast and the barrier islands of the Carolinas, it’s a place she’s never seen on any map."  Menatauk is not only a lost island, but one where only boys are born, where women are stolen as brides from the mainland, and a place where escape is made nearly impossible because of powerful riptides. What had been a playful book became a book that also had a fairytale land at its heart and Rachel Roanoke was no longer ordinary.  Menatauk creates a pact with the reader and its very mythical nature makes other magical elements of the book possible, from the predictive nature of the Fremont map (each child is named after a US state) to the precarious house that mimics the emotional state of the family that lives within its walls.

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, begins in the glacial epoch and by page four there’s evocation of the folklore surrounding marriage that anchor us to the land, landowners and residents of a house by this German lake. Across wars and occupations, this house is a site of incredible injustice, displacements and violence and it’s this initial "othering" that gives this novel a ravaged sense of property and inheritance, and never lets us forget how precarious safety is.  This myth-telling serves as the opening, of the book and of our minds, and allows for the narrative’s wild jumps in time and perspectives by rooting us in this mythical and yet all too real place.

Rather than create something familiar like the more aphoristic-length fairy tales tend to do, well-placed and inimitably written fairy tale elements within longer stories can shift the ground the characters walk on, the very air they breathe.  These elements of impossibility and flashes of magic alter the expectations of the readers and change the possibilities of the narrative.    

Elizabeth Reeder is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She published in a number of literary journals and anthologies. Her novels include Ramshackle, and, as she tells us, above, Fremont.


  1. Lovely essay, I look forward to reading the book. One of my favourite novels with fairy tale elements is 'Of Bees and Mist' by Erik Setiawan. No other evil stepmother will ever compare to his!

    Any other suggestions/recommendations?

  2. great suggestions for reading.

  3. Few things recommend a non-fairy tale book to me than having a "fairy tale feel". I look forward to checking out these books.